The Germanic Component of Old and Middle French: Frankish, Gothic, Burgundian and Their Contributions to the English Tongue


          When William the Conqueror, Duke or Normandy in northern France, seized control of London and the English royal treasury of Winchester in 1066 A.D., crowning himself king, he ushered in a period of fundamental change in the laws, physical structure, customs, economy (England became feudal), church-state relations, architecture, and even the language of England.  William’s army seems to have been predominantly Flemish (Dutch speakers, oddly enough), yet its leaders were the Normans, the descendants of Viking raiders led by the Norwegian Rollo (Hrolf) who settled northern France in 911 A.D.  By William’s time, the Scandinavians had adopted French culture and, in many cases, taken Frankish wives, such that they were largely French-speaking even as they alighted on English soil at Pevensey in their Viking longboats, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry commemorating the Norman Conquest.  Following William’s victory over the English king Harold Godwinson at Hastings and his consolidation of power over the next few years—which involved suppression of Norman revolts as much as English and Danish (in the country’s north) insurrections— French and Latin became official languages of the English court, legal apparatus, and official documents, and English for several centuries was effectively trilingual (English, French, and Latin) in its culture.  Indeed, for several centuries after 1066, “English” literature was largely composed in French. 

            The role of the Normans in rendering prestige status to the French language is sometimes exaggerated, since other Germanic and Slavic languages also fell heavily under the influence of French during medieval and Renaissance periods, owing to the exalted state of French chivalric and later Parisian high and diplomatic culture.  However, English in particular was impacted by French vocabulary, pronunciation, and orthographic practices, much more than other Germanic tongues, and the Normans were the direct cause of this.  Normandy became allied with the Angevins (from Anjou in northern France) in the 12th century, who ruled England with a simultaneous power base in France until the early 1200s, when Normandy itself suffered conquest at the hands of the French King Philip Augustus, after which the Norman duchy ceased to continue as a politically independent region.  Yet for several centuries even after the Fall of Normandy in 1206, England was effectively a cultural colony of France in line with its political status as outremer, a Norman/Angevin French overseas domain, between 1066 and 1206. 

            French, of course, was and is a Romance language derived from the so-called “Vulgar Latin” or street Latin spoken by the soldiers and settlers of the Roman Empire.  France had been known to the Romans as Gaul, populated by a powerful confederation of Celtic tribes who spoke a language called “Gaulish.”  However, when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in the 1st century B.C., he brought the Latin vernacular into Gaul, and Augustus Caesar consolidated the region and effectively defended it from Germanic tribal attacks such that it was thoroughly Romanized.  The Gallo-Roman aristocracy spoke various dialects of the Vulgar Latin language, which became known as “Gallo-Roman” or “Gallo-Latin” following the fall of the Roman Empire.  Thus when French began to permeate England following the Norman Conquest (and to a small extent even before it), it chiefly provided a wealth of Latin-based vocabulary absorbed into English. 

            Surprisingly, however, Norman French also imparted a substantial cohort of German words into English.  Why?  Well, “Gallo-Roman” became “French” when Roman Gaul was invaded, conquered, and heavily settled by three Germanic tribes in the 5th century A.D.: the Visigoths, Burgundians, and the Franks, who gave France the country and French the language its name when they established their kingdom there.  The language of the Franks, Frankish, was closely related to Old Franconian, the ancestor of modern Dutch.  For a time, the German tribes in Gaul maintained a separate identity from the Gallo-Roman aristocracy and masses, observing separate customs and governing themselves via a distinct code of laws.  After approximately two centuries, however, the ruling German tribes themselves were assimilated into the Gallo-Roman population and adopted the local Latin dialects—the most predominant of which, spoken in the environs of Paris, would evolve into modern French.  Other Germanic kingdoms throughout the Roman Empire—the Visigoths in Spain, the Ostrogoths and Lombards in Italy—underwent a similar metamorphosis as the Germans, already partially Romanized from centuries of work as Roman military foederati, eventually adopted Roman ways and language themselves.

            On the road toward assimilation, however, the Germans fundamentally altered the Romance tongues which they adopted as their own.  This was especially apparent in fields like military affairs and agriculture—two areas where the German presence, even during the period of direct Roman rule, were significant.  Words from the various Germanic dialects spoken by the Germans began to percolate into Vulgar Latin, and this became especially true in the case of the Franks, who settled thickly in Gaul and maintained their identity and customs more persistently than the other German tribes.  As a consequence, close to a thousand words of German origin filtered into French, with hundreds being incorporated into the very fabric of everyday speech. 

            Many, of course, had entered into the Vulgar Latin prior to its differentiation into the separate Romance languages.  For example, the French word for pride, orgueil, is of Germanic origin, as are its cognates in the other Romance tongues:  Spanish orgullo, Portuguese orgulho, Italian orgoglio.  (An ironic example, since the English word pride is of French, and hence Latin, origin.  It and its adjectival variant—proud—were imported into English from Old French, prior to the Norman Conquest.  Thus a Germanic language uses a Latin-based word, while the Romance languages utilize a Germanic word.)  Many others streamed in after French had diverged as a distinct language and are not found in other Romance idioms: French fauteuil (chair, armchair), tomber (to fall—akin to English tumble), avachir (to make weak or flabby, akin to modern German weich—weak, flimsy, soft), navré (the interjection “sorry!”, akin to German Narbe, a wound, scar), batiment (building, akin to English build, German bauen), bateau (boat), or epargner, to store away, hold onto (akin to German sparen and English spare).  In fact, French is by far the most Germanic of all the Romance languages.  The significance of this fact for the topic at hand is that when the Normans and Angevins transported Norman/Angevin French across the English Channel, they introduced a linguistic font that was predominantly of Latin heritage, but which nonetheless also possessed a substantial Germanic contingent as well.  Thus ironically, the third major source stream of Germanic vocabulary to the English language—third both chronologically and in terms of quantity after Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse—is French. 

            Since the Germans in the Roman Empire had been so heavily linked to military affairs, a large cohort of the Germanic Norman French vocabulary pertained to war, combat, and metaphorically related concepts like protection and vigilance.  The English word war derives from French guerre (akin to Spanish guerra), which in turn stems from the same root as modern German wehr “defense” (familiar from the term Wehrmacht made infamous during WWII), which itself is akin to wirren “to confuse” (think “the fog of war”).  (In ancient Germanic speech, the sound spelled as “g” was pronounced something like “gv” in many dialects; the Romance languages took the “g” into their tongues, while English took the “v” and hence “w” initial sound in most cases, though it took “g” in others and in a few cases, both, as in the next set of examples.) 

            There is a large and significant collection of words which stem from Germanic roots in French, and are related to English wary and beware as well as German wahren “to watch over, supervise.”  This is the “guar/war” series of words that all, in some way, connote the idea of supervision, protection, alertness, and vigilance.  Guard and ward are two such examples, both derived from the same Germanic root in French (and thence in English after the Normans).  While ward does not carry the same denotation as guard, nonetheless there’s a similar strand underneath, since a ward of the state is someone under government protection, for example.  A similar pairing can be seen in guarantee and warranty, both with similar meanings in English and both from the same Germanic root in French.  Garage, warrant, warden, award, reward, and regard (French regarder means “to look at”) all hail from the same pedigree, as do garrison and garnish, (which originally meant “to supply”). 

            Also in the military/vigilance series of Germanic French roots is one of the most common words in the English language:  wait.  This word stems from Old North French waitier and, in turn, from Frankish Germanic roots akin to English watch and German wachen.  The modern French cognate, guetter, in fact still carries this meaning, denoting a “lying in wait” as near a military installation.  However, its significance drifted when imported into English such that it now denotes the act of waiting itself.  Some other words in this category:  trap, attack, attach, harass, hardy, shock, strife, equip, march, seize, troop, gauntlet, champion, embroil, massacre, shock, guise, guile, guide, harass, skirmish, engage, spy, rank, banish, burglar, rob, poach, feud, bandit, garret, foray, gauntlet.

            Some words in this category pertain to those most French of undertakings:  fashion and cuisine.  Coat, attire, pouch, pocket, garb, robe, and wardrobe are all of Franco-German descent, as are braise, bacon, baste, roast, soup, and grape.  Many motions and depictions of physical contact descend from Franco-German sources: bruise, crush, cramp, hurt.  The Franks, Burgundians, Visigoths, and other German tribes in Gaul engaged heavily in farming and craftworks, so many terms for tools, construction, and fieldwork in French (transmitted into English) are of Germanic origin: hoe, harness, buret, bucket, brick, filter, mail (originally a reference to the small bag in which mail could be transported), towel, crochet, buoy, balloon, balcony, button, bandage, flask.  A few words, of Latin origin, appeared in Germanic languages and then back into French, and into English: decoy, stuff, chamberlain.  Another small set of words—beg and beggar, screen, drug, block, boulevard—were imported into French from Dutch, and thence into English somewhat later than most other loans.  Even some titles for English peerage, stemming from Norman and Angevin French, in turn demonstrate a Germanic origin:  baron and marquis.  (Duke and viscount are of Franco-Latin origin, while king, queen, and earl are of Anglo-Saxon descent.)

            Many others words, more difficult to shoehorn into specific categories, show the same Franco-Germanic heritage:  group, remark, regret, butt, bastard, race, salon, saloon, harbinger, flinch, touch, brash, fee, choice, haste, hardy, bank, bench, furnish, furniture, label, target, escrow, coach, ramp, rampage, embassy, ambassador, spell, garden, etiquette, ticket (same source as etiquette), park, install, goal, hangar, rubbish, rubble, scroll, random, eschew, blue, blemish, flatter, scorn, tack, dance, allure, lure, bourgeois, burgess, bourg, blond, wage, wager, gauge, gain, bargain, rich, haul, debauch, liege, brush, browse, refurbish, packet, embroider, rummage, banner,  banquet, souse, array, plaque. 

            Still another essential and intriguing category of Franco-Germanic origin is names.  Male names in Normandy (and modern France) stem from Biblical and Roman sources to a substantial degree, but also from Germanic streams, often incorporating labels representing battlefield prowess.  Roger, for example, was a Norman French import from Frankish roots similar to Ruhm + ger, “fame spear.”  Richard derived from Ric + hart, “hard ruler.”  (“Rich” and German “reich,” as well as their other Germanic cognates, stem originally from an ancient Celtic loanword.  Anthropologists believe that the Teutonic tribes were originally tributary tribal units relative to Celtic tribes which ruled Europe during much of the Bronze and Iron Ages, contributing their famous La Tene bronzeworks to civilization.)  Many other names—Charles, Robert, William, Leonard, Roland, Ronald, for example—established themselves in English by way of Norman French, having originated in Germanic sources.



-- Wes Ulm


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